July 28, 2011

Overexposed Tiresploitation

By Robinzon Chavez

Rubber is not at all what it seems. What it seems like is a weird, little, independent revenge flick, in which a tire gains sentience, blows things up with its “mind,” and wreaks havoc in a small town.

That’s sort of what it is, at least partially. That storyline is really only the device that allows writer-director Quentin Dupieux to do some even stranger things with the movie, things that I’m not convinced totally work.

Going into this, I was 100% ready to commit to a tire-on-a-rampage movie. However, Dupieux either wasn’t convinced anyone would accept such a film, had no interest in making such a film, or only had a short-film’s worth of material and wanted to beef it up by making it so fucking meta that it hurts.

What we get to start the whole thing off is the immediate knocking down of the fourth wall, which is never rebuilt for the remainder of the film. A solemn looking guy emerges from the trunk of a car and explains that what we are about to see is an ode to “no reason.”

“No reason” is actually a better explanation of the first scene than it is of a tire becoming violently sentient. Isn’t the intended audience for a movie like Rubber ready to accept strangeness like that?

The first scene comes off as an apology for the rest of movie, as in, “We know there’s no way you could watch a film about a killer tire without being eased into it and lubed up good.”

Maybe Dupieux doesn’t know this, but we’re a little past postmodernism at this point. The show-within-a-show, or movie-within-a-movie, is now something that’s readily available on Network Television, or in a Redbox kiosk. Proclamations made after 9/11 that Irony is Dead seemed rather silly in the face of handlebar mustaches, trucker caps, and wolf T-shirts, but there may have been something to it after all.

We now live in an age in which Americans eagerly and genuinely embrace their stupidity, ignorance, and obesity, and our media is fractured and specialized enough to accommodate it. Rubber is a movie that may have at one time freaked out a few squares, but now it’s far too easy for those squares to avoid it for their entire life.

This should have been a gory, rough, overexposed tiresploitation flick, but it comes off more as an interesting, well crafted, slightly underdone student film. This is not to say it’s not an enjoyable movie. The tire in question, supposedly named Robert, does explode quite a few heads, which gives it high marks in my book.

Essentially, Rubber turns out to be a dissection of the film-watching experience, or the film-reviewing experience. Unfortunately, what America needs right now is an unironic, straightforward exploration of a killer tire’s tortured psyche.

Robinzon Chavez
is editor-publisher-founder of America-Thrust.

April 4, 2011

Dogma Collapses

Red State is Kevin Smith starting over.

By Robb Witmer Full 

Maybe since Kevin Smith has always been told that he isn't much of a director, he decided to deconstruct his filmmaking to its component parts and build something new.

Smith has dubbed his foray into self-released films "indie 2.0," but the movie itself is a solid piece of independent filmmaking, very much in the "1.0", or maybe "beta 0.5," mode.

Red State in many ways looks just slightly more polished than what I could produce in my garage. I mean that in a good way. The lack of a musical score gives the whole thing a snuff film feel, and there's plenty of nasty shit happening to keep up the mood.

There is an underlying dread in the background of Red State, kind of like the Blair Witch Project, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre... That feeling that we're watching something we shouldn't.

A lot of that is because we're never given a chance to get comfortable in the story. Every five or ten minutes Smith turns the film in a violent new direction, and Joss Whedon's rule of Any Character Can Die At Any Time certainly plays here.

The main thrust of Red State is that there are inherent layers of bull-shit built into any power structure, and when that bull-shit is left unquestioned is when those power structures get dangerous and allow people to get away with horrible, even primitive, acts.

But we're not left with a lot of time to ponder big ideas. And we shouldn't be. The movie's questions don't have any answers. Certainly not answers a movie can provide us. The pace is quick, and at times frantic... Sometimes, after all, the speed of the real world sweeps us up, and leaves us with no decision to make. Occasionally you get shot in the head.

There's not anyone to root for in this movie. The most redeeming characters get killed off early, and even they didn't have a lot going for them. But it's ultimately not a movie about character arcs, or redemption, or even any sort of victory.

Red State is about a culture in decline, clinging to belief systems that are crumbling themselves. It's the most nihilistic movie since Fight Club, and both films are reminders that society and its dogma can collapse under their own weight sometimes.

Robb Witmer Full considers Mallrats a masterpiece, of a sort.

March 7, 2011

Open-Minded Vikings

How to Train Your Dragon is not burying the lede.  

By Robb Witmer Full 

How does one train a dragon? Make it dependent on you for survival, for one thing.

Okay, our hero, Hiccup, and his dragon, Toothless, are mostly equal partners when all is said and done, but without Hiccup, Toothless is still at the bottom of that canyon.

There were some parts of the story that I would have liked to see explored more deeply, but only if done in an R- or at least PG-13-rated way. Like, the dragons that are kept captive for the students to learn their dragon-killing skills on, that's torture, right? Even Michael Vick would likely be aghast at the size of the mass grave behind that arena.

Not to mention the psychological torture the students go through themselves, being put by their parents into life-threatening situations on a daily basis, and taught to brutally murder living (albeit dangerous) creatures in the process.

And why Hiccup's instructors and fellow students simply accept that he has a "way with the beasts" instead of executing him for witchcraft is beyond me.

The Vikings do have to be commended for their surprising open-mindedness. Somehow (in the course of, what, days?) they are able to go from existing for the sole purpose of dragon-slaying to accepting them as equals. Er, I mean pets. Accepting them as pets.

So, if nothing else, they prove to be more enlightened than your average American.

Robb Witmer Full has never been accused of witchcraft.

February 23, 2011

Crack-Enhanced Bad Situations

An endless swath of highways connects Cedar Rapids to Duets.

By Robb Witmer Full 

Watching this, it felt as though I was really inside Duets, the Gwyneth Paltrow/Huey Lewis karaoke classic. Like when you're in a dream, and you know that you are in a specific place, regardless of the fact that it bears no real resemblance.

Both movies occupy the same universe, the one where the American Midwest is an endless swath of highways connecting hotel bars and crack-houses. The characters' lives in both movies are centered around those bars, and making something of themselves inside of them.

The life of a Midwesterner seems pretty lame to Big City Folk, and that of Midwestern insurance salespeople doubly so. But everybody's got to get their kicks somewhere, and for working types, that's what conventions are for.

In Duets, the prize was the Karaoke Championship. The NATIONAL Karaoke Championship. (One must assume this is a title sanctioned by the U.S. Karaoke Association.) What the characters are really after in that movie is a chance to be a star, even if it's only in front of a few dozen people.

The coveted Two Diamond Award is at the center of Cedar Rapids, but like the National Karaoke Championship, the ESPY's – or, the Oscars, frankly – it is an award that doesn't have a lot of meaning outside of the room it's presented in.

For the insurance sales representatives, the ASMI (?) convention is their yearly chance to party like they used to at state universities and branch campuses. Sleeping around, doing shots, acting like they're some sort of big-shot back home.

There's also always a chance you hang out with the wrong prostitute and get caught up in some crack-enhanced Bad Situations, but that's just part of the territory, a hazing for rookies. This kind of stuff is what the convention/hotel business was built on; Vegas exists because of it.

Cedar Rapids doesn't take nearly as many chances as Duets – not that there are many movies that do or should – but sometimes the safer choices are the right ones.

Of course, in both movies we have characters fall into heavy-duty drug benders that they have no business dealing with, but Cedar Rapids never falls into the Outrageous-Comedy trap, even when it could have easily become just another John C. Reilly-playing-a-dumbass movie.

There's enough of those, or at least there will be eventually. What if the point is to make a grown-up comedy about fucking around? We could probably use a few more of those.

Robb Witmer Full is the National Karaoke Championships correspondent for America-Thrust.

February 22, 2011

Tights and Capes

Superman: The Movie shines its brightness on America. 

By Robb Witmer Full 

Superman comes from a different time in both American Comics and America itself. Comics were pure kids-stuff then, so most of the characters dressed like clowns to catch the eye of any passing children, not at all unlike modern-day cereal boxes, with the use of big, bright, primary-colored mascots to mesmerize the little scamps.

So, I get why the Tights and Capes, I guess, but it's always been a large hurdle to leap, as it were. Why would Superman dress like such a jack-ass?

Or (at least in the movie version), why would his father dress him like such a jack-ass when he made clear to his son that he should try to blend in with humans. And it's not like the film established at any point that Kryptonians ever dressed like that...

Whatever, I'm over it. For now. But, yes, Superman is kind of silly, and he's exactly the sort of character that for so long mis-defined what comic books could be.

There are no shades of gray in this Superman world, very little humor, and absolutely no irony of any kind. People will smile occasionally. Superman, for all his other-worldly advancement and wisdom, is so oblivious to Earth reality that he thinks there really are only two sides, Good and Evil.

Perhaps he just loves fascism. At the end of the movie, when he's dropping the Bad Guys off at the prison -- without all the mess of a trial -- he simply waves at the prison guards and tells them that they're all on the same team.

These same prison guards would happily smuggle drugs and weapons into the prison for the Bad Guys, so long as the price is right. Whose side are they on then, Superman? And what if they're using their ill-gotten gains to feed their family?

And for a guy who is so learned, Superman is still kind of an Aw-Shucks idiot. I know, he was raised in Kansas, but small-town values are not the same thing as dopeyness.

The tone of Superman is hard to get right. Maybe this is why any updated version seems so out of place. It operates on a cultural logic that doesn't exist anymore, except to be made fun of, and to ridicule it would destroy the whole Superman ethos.

A mid-90's Superman movie, to be directed by Tim Burton almost looked like this:

I'm not making that up. It makes the Schumacher-era Batman movies look like... well, the Schumacher-era Batman movies.

We want Superman to be dorky, and simple, and to wear the the blue and red tights even if they are, as Jon Peters once famously said, "too faggy."

Superman: The Movie gets it mostly right. Does it get too close to Cheese? Yes, dangerously so. Obviously, it's pretty hard to believe that Clark Kent's co-workers, especially Lois Lane, don't get that he's Superman, but at this point if you can't accept that then you are some sort of Secret Communist.

And a bomb that can hit the San Andreas fault right in the G-spot, causing California to fall into the ocean? Even if it were possible, come the fuck on. And let's not discuss whether or not time will actually go backwards if the Earth spins backwards.

Christopher Reeve is just un-bland enough to keep the audience awake and Lois Lane interested. Actually, it's hard to understand what she sees in Superman, except for the 6'5", studly, and able-to-fly thing. Reeve is not exactly Mark-Hamill-in-Star-Wars bad, but I don't see what he brings to the table besides looking just like Superman.

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is totally underused in this movie. He spends most of it behind a desk, underground, being about half as interesting as Gene Hackman can be.

Brando, on the other hand, if fucking awesome as Jor-El. The opening sequence on Krypton should have been an entire prequel itself. Who wouldn't want to see a whole movie about a planet that runs on Crystal Technology?

That would have been far too cool, however. The movie we did get is exactly what we need a Superman movie to be: action-packed, kid-friendly, a little boring, and most of all, BRIGHT.

Robb Witmer Full has never worn tights; capes, occasionally.

February 17, 2011

Digital Masks

Catfish is the real Facebook movie.

By Robb Witmer Full 

The Social Network is and will forever be "the Facebook movie," but Catfish is a movie that takes place within Facebook. The site is used as a tool to set up an entire fantasy world for the center of the documentary, Nev.

And he falls for it, hook, line and sinker. But who can blame the guy? He is seduced by an impossibly beautiful and talented country girl who is completely taken with his Big City Life and perfect teeth.

That she isn't real doesn't make their relationship any less authentic, their connection any less strong. The truth is that Megan, or Angela, rather, doesn't know the real Nev any more than he knows the real her.

Okay, a little bit more. But Facebook is just another in a long line of technologies, dating back to masks and face-paint, that allows us to hide our true selves, if even just a little. The internet hasn't changed this, it's just given us a new venue for it.

Who we are on Facebook is not who we are at work, or out for drinks on Friday evening, or at Sunday dinner with our parents; it's like a Fight Club that you can talk about. But we are all these people at the same time. Technology has allowed an unbelievable amount of connection, but also allows us to fracture our personalities in ways we chose, and in ways that we can lose control of.

Catfish is about that loss of control, and the depths to which that fracturing can take us. And like drug addiction, when we've lost that control we often hurt someone we care about.

There's nothing malicious about what Angela did, but it is incredibly fucked-up. She certainly needed the fantasy more than Nev did, and she probably ended up hurting herself more than him.

Angela is a sad, creative person, not happy with who she is, but she's able to live vicariously through her own imagination. Nev fell for her deception, but it's hard to view him as a victim. She did it for his benefit as well as hers, to continue the real friendship going between two fake people.

Robb Witmer Full is editor-at-large of America-Thrust.

A Reckless, Arrogant, and Stupid Dick

In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg finds his place on the DAP spectrum.

By Robb Witmer Full 

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole, maybe he's not. If I had to decide where he fits into the Team America Dick-Asshole-Pussy Spectrum, I'd have to say Dick.

Actually, now that I think of it, the whole movie is kind of based on the D.A.P.S.

Team America tells us "the problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn't appropriate." That is exactly what Zuckerberg does. He fucks his one and only friend (Pussy), and fairly inappropriately.

He also sticks it into a triumvirate of rich, raging Assholes on his way there. In Zuckerberg's defense, they did want to shit all over him. And since he's a dick — a reckless, arrogant, and stupid dick — he can't really help it, can he?

This movie is nearly flawless. The script is tight and fast, every performance is spot-on, the score is not only tension-building but sometimes downright frightening, and every frame is visually stunning.

David Fincher must be an enormous prick.

Robb Witmer Full would rather not take a position on where he fits onto the DAPS.

February 2, 2011

The Prinze of Preposterousness

Don't watch Prince of Persia too closely, and it could be worth your time.

By Robb Witmer Full 

I swear that for the entire time I was watching this, I thought the star was Freddie Prinze, Jr. It may have been the Pinze-Prince connection, or that it never dawned on me that Jake Gyllenhaal would be cast in the role of action hero... Not that Prinze would have made any more sense.

But there were a lot of "Wow, where has this guy been?" -type thoughts going through my head. (IYI: Freddie Prinze, Jr.'s resume since the Scooby Doo movies is a bit sparse, but does include a writing credit on an episode of WWE Saturday Night's Main Event, so he hasn't entirely disappeared.)

Gyllenhaal, alas, is no Freddie, but that's fine. The actors in Prince of Persia are kind of inconsequential to the movie and, just like the plot and the characters, only get in the way of moving on to the next action scene.

Which are actually kind of awesome. The parkour scenes are pretty cool, even if it's never explained what it is, or where he learned it. Born with it? Sure, why not.

There's nothing to complain about in the swordplay or stabbing-death departments either, though they are decidedly gore-free. And I gotta say, there are a couple of good dick jokes for a Disney movie.

As for the plot, I've never seen a movie that was so unconcerned with how it got from one action sequence to the next. Every plot device seems to happen totally out of context, or accidentally. Mostly accidentally. I vaguely remember one scene where a character says they need some-thing or -one and another character basically says, "Oh, well, that thing or someone is right around this corner," and bam, there it was.

Maybe the scene didn't happen exactly like that. I can't really remember, since I wasn't paying close enough attention, but that's only because it doesn't matter. Getting too involved in the plot would only use the parts of your brain that should be turned off when watching movies like this.

At the end, when Gyllenhaal is explaining to his brother what has been going on the whole time, actually saying the plot out loud, the movie seems to take a moment to let it sink in so the audience can accept the preposterousness of it all. The film itself acknowledges that preposterousness throughout.

The moments that Gyllenhaal is made to look cool, or charming, or shirtlessly hunky, are done completely sincerely, but also hilariously off the mark every single time. At least a few times in these moments, Gyllenhaal seems to smirk at the camera as if to say, "Are you still watching? Yeah? Then check this out."

Can Prince of Persia compare to Road House or Only the Strong as a camp classic? Sadly, no. It's just a little too polished and Disney-fied for that. But if you are are drunk, or trying to distract a multi-generational family gathering, it might be the movie for you.

Robb Witmer Full is editor-at-large of America-Thrust.

January 19, 2011

"Crap Adverts"

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, we are all being had.

By Robb Witmer Full 

"I don't know who the joke is on," says Banksy's former art dealer in the closing moments of Exit Through the Gift Shop. "I don't even know if there is a joke."

If the joke is on anyone, it's on the people who hand over tens- and hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for works of street-art to put in their homes and galleries, the act of which renders these works forgeries, or at least cheap facsimiles, of actual street-art.

In this movie we learn that art is all that matters, and that art is also pure bull-shit. Street-art was the real punk rock for a while. It was taking back public spaces from "crap adverts," creating anonymous superstars, and developing a truly underground scene. Then it got popular.

On my second viewing of Gift Shop, it finally hit me what I was watching: a more sophisticated Windy City Heat. In that movie the joke was on someone who clearly has some sort of brain damage, while Gift Shop's Thierry Guetta is simply a clueless Frenchman.

The glaring difference, of course, is that with Windy City, the project was always the documentary. The movie was intended as the end result. For Banksy, the project was Thierry himself.

Which is why, maybe, some audiences could come to question the genuineness of the film. Clearly there's some sort of ruse going on here, but it's not that the documentary was staged, at least not in the standard sense.

Shepard Fairey admits that Mr. Brainwash is a creation, an up-and-coming street-artist simply because the right people — including himself — said so.

That Thierry doesn't actually make most Mr. Brainwash pieces himself is beside the point... Or, rather, IS the point. His success is the result of pure hype. He's playing the part, in real life.

It never occurs to Thierry that that's all he's doing, just as Windy City's Perry Caravello, even after watching the movie, still doesn't get that it was all a prank. (I wasn't joking about the brain damage.)

Does it even matter? The joke on Caravello was that he thought he was going to be the star of a movie, but you know what? He is the star of a movie.

Thierry might be a successful street-artist as a rusult of an elaborate hoax/art project put on by Banksy, but that doesn't change the fact that he's a successful street-artist.

Gift Shop isn't the swindle, Mr. Brainwash is, and it's Banksy's big "fuck you" to all the hipsters and cool people who made him successful. That's the most punk rock thing there is.

Robb Witmer Full thinks the joke might be on you.

January 17, 2011

River City Trips

A review of 1962's psychedelic masterpiece The Music Man.

By Robb Witmer Full 

As with any musical you have to believe that people will sing and dance for no reason, but 1962's The Music Man isn't just an exercise in disbelief, it's a psychedelic masterpiece. 

The lead character, Harold Hill (not his real name), is a scammer of immense talent. Within hours of his arrival in River City, Iowa, he's able to work every respectable adult into a froth over a pool-table, and the next day he leads the entire town in a mass hallucination.

That Hill's buddy Marcellus — who now lives in River City — doesn't seem to have any problem with Hill grifting his adopted home is a reflection of what ultimately seems to be the main theme here: there are no real consequences for morally-objectionable behavior as long as people like you.

Marion, Hill's love interest, is never anything more than a mark to Hill until the final few minutes of the movie. His interests are to use her and move on. That she is a tough nut that eventually cracks is what convinces him he loves her, I guess. Hill's interest in Marion is the one thing about him that is not totally convincing.

Marion tells herself she knows better — and she does — but at least Hill is exciting. Before he came to town, the most eligible bachelor in town was her eight year-old brother.

When she finally succumbs to his advances, it's rather sudden, and certainly seems as though she's been drugged. It may have been just a run-of-the-mill swoon, but with all the strange behavior surrounding Hill, mind-altering substances and mind-controlling techniques begin to make a lot more sense.

There is constant reference to something called the "Think System," which Marion's mother claims to have used on Marion in order to get her to agree to Hill's propositioning. The specific dynamics of the "Think System" are never fully explained, but it should be noted that cocaine was commonly available in 1912.

The school board-turned-barbershop quartet provide some of the better musical moments in the film, and usually to the benefit of Hill, who uses the commotion to make multiple escapes. The quartet are clearly the victims of hypnotism, but no matter: they can sing. Usually on command. Hill's command.

It's amazing that a story can work so well with a lead character with so few redeeming qualities. Right up until the very end the plan is still to get out of town before anyone catches on. His staying seems to be as much about his fatigue from the grifter's life as it is a connection to Marion or anyone else. 

A close viewing reveals Hill isn't even sure he's staying until he can hear his train leaving. He decides to accept his fate only when he realizes he's lost a step and can't hang anymore.

And, it never is clear if Hill has any intention of telling the woman he supposedly loves what his real name is, though I would say probably not. These new River City Trips are just an extension of his final grift.

Which must keep on going for a while. Eventually, River City accepts that what Hill has given them is more important than what he has basically stolen from them, though no one contemplates that what he has given them might be a massive dose of LSD-25 through their water supply.

The movie ends with yet another mass hallucination — or possibly part hallucination, part piercing of space-time — in which the future River City Boy's Band has grown to roughly ten times the size of the town itself.

So maybe the whole thing is just a dream. Harold Hill's dream — or whoever he really is — about living the life of the traveling swindler, going from town to town, hooking up with hot librarians, ruining the name of the hard-working salesman, making just enough of a living to move on to the next one...

In other words, Harold Hill's Dream of America.

Robb Witmer Full has never lived the Grifter's Life, but that doesn't stop him from wearing the hat!